Smith one of many QBs taking it on the chin

Sunday's game between the 49ers and Eagles will feature two starting QBs that already have sustained concussions in a season that's only three weeks old. Michael Vick also has suffered a hand injury, and Alex Smith is on a pace to be sacked 59 times this season. Despite QBs getting banged around at a record pace, the NFL has done little to protect the game's passers from a preponderance of hits.

Those recent remarks by Vick aside, the consensus feeling among non-quarterbacks around the league, and even some fans, is that the NFL has tried way too hard to insulate its most notable, high-profile and highest-paid performers by figuratively constructing a cocoon around the league's passers.

But not even legislation, or the implicit directions to game officials to protect the game's most conspicuous players, might help save quarterbacks this season.

Just ask the 49ers' Smith. He has been sacked 11 times in the last two games while absorbing a total of 17 quarterback hits from the Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals. He's been taking way too much punishment in the pocket behind a struggling offensive line, and behind him the 49ers have two unproven rookie backups, neither of whom has taken a regular-season NFL snap.

Smith and his counterpart this week – Philadelphia's Vick, who was outspoken this week about the hits he has been taking – both suffered concussions in Week 2 games, but came back to play the next week. Vick was injured again last week when he suffered a deep bruise on his non-throwing hand that forced him out of the Eagles' loss to the New York Giants.

There hasn't exactly been an alarming accumulation of catastrophic quarterback injuries at this early juncture of the season, but the preponderance of hits already absorbed by the passers in only three weeks of play suggests there might not be many signal-callers who can remain perpendicular and ambulatory for all 16 games.

The efforts of the league and the game officials notwithstanding, quarterbacks are the hunted prey every week for defenses and for defensive coordinators who spend their weeks conjuring up new and exotic ways to attack the pocket.

Short of putting all of the league's quarterbacks in bubble wrap, or surrounding them with those nettlesome Styrofoam packing chips, there might not be much more that the NFL can do to protect them.

Assessed one veteran NFC starting quarterback to The Sports Xchange earlier this week: "You almost feel like a pinata out there right now."

With good reason, since quarterbacks around the league might be facing a losing battle of attrition.

Through the first three weekends of the regular season, nine quarterbacks have been sacked three times or more per outing. Extrapolating statistics, particularly this early in a campaign is always a dicey pursuit, for sure. But projecting current sack numbers over the course of an entire season, even ostensibly for the sake of argument, shows that seven quarterbacks right now are on pace to take 50 or more sacks in 2011.

How does that compare to recent campaigns? It's one more than the number of passers who were sacked 50 or more times in the past eight years combined. Just once in the last eight seasons has there been more than one quarterback sacked 50 times in a year. Not since 2001 did the NFL have more than two quarterbacks sacked 50 times or more.

Smith, who was sacked six times against the Cowboys and five more times against the Bengals last week, is on a pace to be sacked 59 times behind an unsettled line that has gotten worse instead of better as the weeks of September progressed.

The league's most marked man, Jay Cutler of Chicago, has been sacked an NFL-high 14 times in three weeks. That projects to 75 sacks for the year, which would be the most since David Carr (then of Houston) was dumped 76 times in 2002.

Last year, when he was generally regarded as an easy target, Cutler was sacked 52 times. Little wonder that the sixth-year veteran conceded this week that the sacks might finally be getting to him and negatively hastening his release.

But the statuesque Cutler isn't the only sad-sacked quarterback.

Atlanta standout Matt Ryan has been sacked 13 times and, according to unofficial statistics, been hit on 21 other occasions. In his first three seasons in the league, by comparison, Ryan was sacked a total of 59 times. His current projection: 69 sacks.

Smith, Tarvaris Jackson (Seattle), Sam Bradford (St. Louis), Chad Henne (Miami) and Eli Manning (New York Giants) all have been sacked 10 or more times as well.

"It's get the quarterback, pretty much at all costs," acknowledged Colts defensive end Robert Mathis, who, along with teammate Dwight Freeney, made life miserable for Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger last week, and who had a sack-and-strip that resulted in an Indianapolis touchdown.

It seems the league is caught in a sort of vicious cycle right now. As detailed by The Sports Xchange in a column earlier this month, offensive line units are as juggled as they have been in several seasons, and that has been true for the 49ers, even though they have fortified their starting line with three first-round draft picks and a second-rounder over the past half-decade.

That has prompted, in part, more passing, since protection schemes are allegedly easier to design than run-blocking blueprints. Just ask the 49ers, who have struggled mightily in the running game, averaging just 2.5 yards per carry and ranking 30th in the NFL in rushing offense. San Francisco is dead last in the NFL in total offense, averaging 213.7 yards per game.

But the historic passing numbers have also meant that quarterbacks are being hit, not just sacked, a lot more, as well.

And until offenses become more balanced perhaps as the season goes on – or maybe quarterback injuries precipitate a change – there might not be much the league can do about a position under siege.

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